Helping Me Help You Helps Me

In a one-on-one meeting today, one of my colleagues said, “I’d like you to hold me accountable for ____________.”  Then we discussed her request and why she made it in the first place.  We did some preliminary problem solving.  And then I left the meeting and made a note in my calendar to check in with her about the topic in a future meeting.

A school or organization’s culture is really humming along when leadership and followership dissolve into something more like partnership.  As the nominal leader in this situation, I felt great about discovering where to focus my energy and attentional filters as they relate to this colleague.  By helping me to focus, she helped me to help her, which is what I want to do more than anything else for the people with whom I work.  Therefore, she helped me.

How I Connected with People Today

Facetime (1)
Email (>50)
Face-to-Face group meeting (3)
Twitter (5)
LinkedIn (2)
Text (7)
Calendly (1)
Phone (2)
Face-to-Face, One-on-One meeting (5)
Zoom (1) (1)
Wordpress (1)

I tried to be the same me in every space, to offer the same value regardless of time, path, place, or mode. The trick, I’ve found, to doing that is to concentrate as much as you can on the person on the other end of the phone, Zoom link, meeting room, etc.  Forgetting the medium is easy when you are really focusing on the connection that the medium makes possible.

Stephens on Writing via Pink

In his newly enhanced newsletter, Dan Pink suggests a short column by Op-Ed writer Bret Stephens.  It’s about writing — tips about writing op-eds to be precise.  Here’s some of the advice that I think is worth keeping.

Cliches are bad.  We know this.  Stephens avoids the cliche in cliche bashing by comparing cliches to Velveeta cheese (for chefs) and noting that they are “indicative of the mental slop that lies beneath.”  Ouch and indeed.

“If you find writing easy, you’re doing it wrong.”  Pink loved that sentence, and I’d add that it’s exactly right most of the time.

Stephens ends well, too: “I’d wish you luck,” he writes, “but good writing depends on conscious choice, not luck.  Make good choices.”

I’ve read and edited a mountain of writing.  Ninth grade essays on Lord of the Flies, college admissions essays, the writing of college students, graduate students, and high school administrators.  I’ve read and edited stories from third graders and aspiring sixty-year-old poets.  I’ve edited police blotters and high school literary magazines.  The writers worth reading make conscious choices.

They use vowel-loaded words when they’re talking about rivers and hard consonants when they’re feeling upset or broken. Even if their choices aren’t great, the fact that they choose words carefully, consider sentence lengths, and wrestle with imagery and symbolism signals an acute resistance of automaticity and the urge to tell too much.  They disrupt silence, in other words, reluctantly and reverently.  Kerouac and Ginsberg were heroes to me once, but their “first though, best thought” method was, is, and will be . . . bunk.

How People Are Working (Right Now)

I saw this “in the wild” today.”* **  ***

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*The degree to which people can share their work processes today never ceases to amaze me.

**As a teacher, I love the just-in-time opportunity that this opens up.

***I also love the leadership instinct that’s present in this example.  You can watch the the leader in the conversation emerge as she suggests the best way to connect, serving the present task by choosing the best tool at the best time.

Practice Makes Practice

I was raised in a household where practice was seen as a church in which you prayed to your own potential. Practice was a gift, giving you an opportunity to develop a new skill, connect to a new group of people, or come one step closer to mastering a craft.

My upbringing is perhaps why I’m so excited to be back in school. . . .  Schools are filled with many different types of people and groups, many different types of problems and possibilities.  At base, then, every educator has a chance to practice what is perhaps the most fundamental human act — communicating.

Every time you stand in front of a classroom or in the center of a huddle; every time a student shares hard or good news with you; every time a parent is anxious or asks a tough question, you have the chance to practice communicating.  To get better at it.  To have the opportunity to keep practicing.

No Big Deal

A few days ago, I approached the copier near my office and started to key in my email address.  I was doing what I had done many times before — setting up the machine to generate a scanned document that would then be sent to my email inbox.

This time, as I started typing the first few letters of my email address, the address auto-filled.  This saved me a few seconds (or more, depending on typos) and felt like a small gift from the universe.

Today, a colleague was attempting the same process and the same thing happened.  He let out a literal yelp of joy.  When I asked him what happened, he told me, and one of our new colleagues overheard us talking.  She said, “I auto-programmed your emails into the copier to save you time.  It was really no big deal.”

“No big deal” is often quite rare . . . like other small kindnesses, courtesies, and supportive gestures that make certain workplaces so quietly special, so patently human.

The Act Begets the Act

In the book Deep Work, the author talks about the fact that there are several reasons to perform deep work.  One (under-appreciated) reason to work deeply is that, in working deeply, you build up the stamina and ability to work deeply.  The act begets the act.

I feel the same way about blogging each weekday based on a simple prompt: what is something that I noticed today?  By writing about what I notice, I build up the capacity to notice.  The noticing muscle gets stronger.  Not necessarily better, but stronger.  The act begets the act.

Jason Fried’s Trip to the Corner Office

While taking a break from planning my English class (which starts tomorrow), I read this New York Times Corner Office interview with Jason Fried of Basecamp.  I have long been a fan of Fried’s thinking and leadership style, and today he gave me a great assist. What could be a better introduction to an English class than his answer to a question about how his company hires?

Our top hiring criteria — in addition to having the skills to do the job — is, are you a great writer? You have to be a great writer to work here, in every single position, because the majority of our communication is written, primarily because a lot of us work remotely but also because writing is quieter. And we like long-form writing where people really think through an idea and present it.

I also love his rejection of the chat services upon which so many organizations have come to rely:

This is one of the reasons I don’t like chat services. When companies start thinking one line at a time and everyone’s rushed and you have to get your conversation in before it scrolls off the screen, I think it’s a terrible, frantic way to work, and people are burning out because of it.

To be clear, I don’t only love what these quotations say about the importance of writing; I also love the way they demonstrate thinking that legitimately cuts against the grain.  In a time when communications professionals are encouraging us to write fewer words and use more images, Fried asks his employees to use “long-form” writing.  And he also has the insight to think through the human cost (in this case, burnout) of tools that were supposed to make work easier.  It’s important to learn to write well; it’s also important to keep an eye on the downside of relying on strengths and ease.

Mastery in Tension: a Q&A with Tim Ferriss

As a big fan of Tim Ferriss’ podcast,  I was thrilled to meet Tim himself at a recent mentorship event I attended in Denver.  Truth be told, we only spoke for a few minutes (about the Mayweather v. McGregor fight), so the main event, for me, was a chance to attend an intimate Q&A with him.

As he fielded questions ranging from his thoughts on cryptocurrency to his favorite movie, I noticed an interesting tension in his responses.

On one hand, he pushes people to play to those areas in which they are both naturally gifted and strong.  These are some of the questions he encouraged us to ask:

  • What would this [activity, project, task] look like if it were easy?
  • Am I applying hard work to the right things?
  • What’s easy for me that is hard for other people?
  • Am I playing the right game?
  • Where do I have an unfair advantage?

On the other hand, he pushes people to work harder than they ever have.  Here are a few things he advised us to do and not do:

  • In marketing, do whatever is most unexpected that you can afford.  Don’t stick to the script.
  • Pick a project that truly energizes you, because “great” requires a level of energy and focus that will be uncommon.
  • Don’t try to out-Buzzfeed Buzzfeed.  The only uncrowded market is “great.”
  • Don’t stop at 95%.  Like a marathon, the last 5% is the key to “great.”  And, like a marathon, this last 5% will require everything you’ve got.
  • To leap [in your business, industry, performance] you have to completely change the way you think.

When thinking about the tension in those two groups of bullet points, I can easily trace a throughline back to performance coaching, of which Ferriss is surely familiar.  If you want to achieve uncommon mastery, you have to work very, very hard on those particular habits and skills that will help you to succeed.  Sometimes you have to work hard at what’s easy, building upon initial strength or ability.  Sometimes you have to work hard at what’s hard.  Both approaches require commitment and discipline that begin with clear thinking.  Am I working on the right things, at the right time, in the right order?  Or is there another way entirely?